Decision Day had arrived for our oldest kid. The first pancake. The first one out of the nest. The first one headed to college. In truth, on that day I think I was more nervous than my senior. I didn’t think I had so much riding on the outcome, but my body betrayed my brain. All day long I was taking deep breaths to quell my anxiety. When the first acceptance letter arrived, I let out a sigh of relief: she was going to college. Somewhere. But that feeling didn’t last.
That was only the first day of many months of feeling out of control. I really felt like my family unit was breaking. The anticipation of saying goodbye snuck up on me and overwhelmed me at random moments. I cried doing the dishes. At the grocery store. In the shower. I was a mess.
Okay, so this wasn’t exactly a new sensation. I also wept when this same child went to overnight camp for the first time. Apparently, I’m not so great with transitions. It got easier with each subsequent child — but that poor firstborn always gets the dubious honor of teaching me the ropes.
Master of the Rodeo
Fast-forward a bunch of years, and we’ve now sent five kids to college. That’s five rodeos, so in theory, each one should have gotten easier. But here’s the thing: each time was its own first. Three kids applied to college with very little fanfare. They pretty much drove the process. We read their essays, took them to campus visits, and helped with the final decision. Two could have used a bit more hand holding. One missed the application deadline for scholarship money. And one was invited to apply for a scholarship but never told us and never applied because the application was “very long.”
There were victories and losses along the way, and we did learn something from each successive journey. For example, we tried to prepare ourselves and our kids for the possibility of rejection. And when it came, it was devastating — but thankfully brief. (Yes, there is life after college rejection!)
If I had a sixth child, I think I could really nail this college thing.
Because here is what I know for sure.
1. College admissions is a lottery.
Nothing about college admissions is personal. It’s not a meritocracy; it’s not about who “deserves” to get in. Colleges have business goals, diversity goals, demographic goals, and legacy admits. That year, they may need a swimmer, a trombone player, or some other random skill your kid doesn’t have. They may not win a spot for so many reasons you will never know, but it’s not because they weren’t “good enough.”
2. It’s wise to anticipate some disappointment.
We can’t protect our kids from disappointment in life, and that goes double for the college admissions process. That’s a simple truth. But we can love and support them, and help them build resilience so that they can bounce back. Maybe not in that hour, or even on that day. But eventually. That’s gold star parenting.
3. Set realistic expectations, early in the process.
While we can’t protect our kids from disappointment (see #2), there are a few things we can do to set realistic expectations.
• Be clear up front about how much you can afford to pay for college. And be clear that the actual cost will be unknown until the financial aid package arrives. That means your student will need to be 1) admitted and 2) get adequate aid for them to be able to attend. This is a conversation to have before the apply!
• If possible, go visit colleges after they are accepted and after you know that you can afford the school. Until that point, it’s all theoretical. They may love a particular school on paper but hate it in person. Or vice versa. I took my fourth kid to her admitted schools and watched her eyes light up the moment we drove into the school that she ultimately attended.
4. College news is not your news.
Don’t say “we are applying.” And when they find out if it’s a “yes” or a “no,” don’t make that moment a public one. In the case of rejection, why not leave room to cope with the immediate sting of disappointment in private? And if there’s cause for celebration, well — this one is easy. Just celebrate with your family before it goes public, and let your student be the one to share the news. They’re going to college, not you. (Sadly.)
5. There is no “right” way to say goodbye.
Parents have a wide range of reactions to sending their child to college. Some have been excitedly waiting for the day while others have been dreading the passage of time leading to this moment. I wept with despair when we dropped off my youngest. Others I know felt guilty about not feeling sad enough. There are no wrong feelings here.
Facing an empty nest when you return from drop off? Here’s the best advice I received from friends with older kids — plan a treat. A weekend away, or a staycation. A romantic dinner or girls’ night out. A road trip to visit with family or friends. Yes, I wept. Then my husband and I went to visit some of our kids. And magically, we adjusted to enjoying a new stage of life! After a few visits with my therapist.
Susan Borison is the founder and editor in chief of Your Teen Media, and queen of the college rodeo. She is still learning how to say goodbye to her adult children without crying.